Jettison the Digital Nanny State: Digitally Augment Users

My last blog argued that the UK should stop moving along the road of a duty of care regime, as this will lead Britain to become what might be called a ‘Digital Nanny State’, undermining the privacy and freedom of expression of all users. A promising number of readers agreed with my concerns, but some asked whether there was an alternative solution.

Before offering my suggestions, I must say that I do not see any solutions outlined by the duty of care regime. Essentially, a ‘duty of care’ approach[1], as outlined in the Cyber Harms White Paper would delegate solutions to the big tech companies, threatening top executives with huge fines or criminal charges if they fail to stop or address them.[2] That said, I assume that any ‘solutions’ would involve major breaches of the privacy and freedom of expression of Internet users across Britain given that surveillance and content controls would be the most likely necessity of their approach. The remedy would be draconian and worse that the problems to be addressed.[3]

Nevertheless, it is fair to ask how the problems raised by the lists of cyber harms could be addressed. Let me outline elements of a more viable approach. 

Move Away from the Concept of Cyber Harms

Under the umbrella of cyber harms are lumped a wide range of problems that have little in common beyond being potential problems for some Internet users. Looked at with any care it is impossible to see them as that similar in origin or solution. For example, disinformation is quite different from sexting. They involve different kinds of problems, to different people, imposed by different actors. Trolling is a fundamentally different set of issues than the promotion of female genital mutilation (FGM). The only common denominator is that any of these actions might result is some harm at some level for some individuals or groups – but they are so different that they violate common sense and logic to put them into the same scheme. 

Moreover, any of the problems are not harms per se, but actions that could be harmful – maybe even lead to many harms at many different levels, from psychological to physical.  Step one in any reasonable approach would be to decompose this list of cyber harms into specific problems in order to think through how each problem could be addressed. Graham Smith captures this problem in noting that the mishmash of cyber harms might be better labelled ‘users behaving badly’.[4] The authors of the White Paper did not want a ‘fragmented’ array of problems, but the reality is that there are distinctly different problems that need to be addressed in different ways in different contexts by different people. For example, others have argued for looking at cyber harms from the perspective of human rights law. But each problem needs to be addressed on its own terms.

Remember that Technologies have Dual Effects

Ithiel de Sola Pool pointed out how almost any negative impact of the telephone could be said to have exactly the opposite impact as well – ‘dual effects’.[5] For example, a telephone in one’s home could undermine your privacy by interrupting the peace and quiet of the household, but it could also provide more privacy compared to people coming to your door. A computer could be used to enhance the efficiency of an organization, but if poorly designed and implemented, the same technology could undermine its efficiency. In short, technologies do not have inherent, deterministic effects, as their implications can be shaped by how we design, use and govern them in particular contexts. 

This is important here because the discussion of cyber harms is occurring is a dystopian climate of opinion. Journalists, politicians, and academics are jumping on a dystopian bandwagon that is as misleading as the utopian bandwagon of the Arab Spring when all thought the Internet would democratize the world. Both the utopian and dystopian perspectives are misleading, deterministic viewpoints that are unhelpful for policy and practice. 

Recognise: Cyber Space is not the Wild West

Many of the cyber harms listed in the White Paper are activities that are illegal. It seems silly to remind the Home Office in the UK that what is illegal in the physical world is also illegal online in so-called cyber space or our virtual world. Given that financial fraud or selling drugs is illegal, then it is illegal online, and is a matter for law enforcement. The difference is that activities online do not always respect the same boundaries as activities in the real world of jurisdictions, law enforcement, and the courts. But this does not make the activities any less illegal, only more jurisdictionally complex to police and enforce. This does not require new law but better approaches to connecting and coordinating law enforcement across geography of spaces and places. Law enforcement agencies can request information from Internet platforms, but they probably should not outsource law enforcement, as suggested by the cyber harms framework. Cyber space is not the “Wild West” and never was.

Legal, but Potentially Harmful, Activities Can be Managed

The White Paper lists many activities that are not necessarily illegal – in fact some actions are not illegal, but potentially harmful. Cyberbullying is one example. Someone bullying another person is potentially harmful, but not necessarily. It is sometimes possible to ignore or standup to a bully and find that this actually could raise one’s self-esteem and sense of efficacy. A bully on the playground can be stopped by a person standing up to him or her, or another person intervening, or a supervisor on the playground calling a stop to it. If an individual repeatedly bullies, or actually harms another person, then they face penalties in the context of that activity, such as the school or workplace. In many ways, the act of cyberbullying can be useful in proving that a particular actor bullied another person. 

Many other examples could be developed to show how each problem has unique aspects and requires different networks of actors to be involved in managing or mitigating any harms. Many problems do not involve malicious actors, but some do. Many occur in households, others in schools, and workplaces, and anywhere at any time. The actors, problems, and contexts matter, and need to be considered in addressing these issues. 

Augment User Intelligence to Move Regulation Closer to Home

Many are beginning to address the hype surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) as a technological fix.[6] But in the spirit of Douglas Englebart in the 1950s, computers and the Internet can be designed to ‘augment’ human intelligence, and AI along with other tools have the potential to augment the choices of Internet users, as so widely experience in the use of search. While technically and socially challenging, it is possible and an innovative challenge to develop approaches to using digital technology to move regulation closer to the users: with content regulation, for example, being enabled by networked individuals, households, schools, businesses, and governmental organizations, as opposed to moving regulation up to big tech companies or governmental regulators. 

Efforts in the 1990s to develop a violence-chip (V-chip) for televisions provides an early example of this approach. It was designed to allow parents to set controls to prevent young children from watching adult programming. It would move content controls closer to the viewers and, theoretically, parents. [Children were often the only members of the household who knew how to use the V-chip.] The idea was good, its implementation limited. 

Cable television services often enable the use of a child lock for reducing access by children to adult programming. Video streaming services and age verification systems have had problems but remain ways to potentially enable a household to create services safer for children. Mobile Internet and video streaming services have apps for kids. Increasingly, it should be possible to design more ways to control access to content by users and households in ways that can address many of the problems raised by the cyber harms framework, such as access to violent content, that can be filtered by users.

With emerging approaches of AI, for example, it could be possible to not simply have warning flags, but information that could be used by users to decide whether to block or filter online content, such as unfriending a social media user. With respect to email, while such tools are in their infancy, there is the potential for AI to be used to identify emails that reflect bullying behavior. So Internet users will be increasingly able to detect individuals or messages that are toxic or malicious before they even see them, much like SPAM and junk mail can disappear before ever being seen by the user.[7] Mobile apps, digital media, intelligent home hubs and routers, and computer software generally could be designed and used to enable users to address their personal and household concerns. 

One drawback might be the ways in which digital divides and skills could enable the most digitally empowered households to have more sophisticated control over content and services. This will create a need for public services to help households without the skills ‘inhouse’ to grapple with emerging technology. However, this could be a major aspect of educational and awareness training that is one valuable recommendation of the Cyber Harms White Paper. Some households might create a personalized and unique set of controls over content, while others might simply choose from a number of set profiles that can be constantly up-dated, much like anti-virus software and SPAM filters that permit users to adjust the severity of filtering. In the future, it may be as easy to avoid unwanted content as it now is to avoid SPAM and junk mail. 

Disinformation provides another example of a problem that can be addressed by existing technologies, like the use of multiple media sources and search technologies. Our own research found that most Internet users consulted four our more sources of information about politics, for example, and online (one source), they would consult an average of four different sources.[8] These patterns of search meant that very few users are likely to be trapped in a filter bubble or echo chamber, albeit still subject to the selective perception bias that no technology can cure. 


My basic argument is to not to panic in this dystopian climate of opinion and consider the following:

  • Jettison the duty of care regime. It will create problems that are disproportionately greater than the problems to be addressed.
  • Jettison the artificial category of cyber harms. It puts apples and oranges in the same basket in very unhelpful ways, mixing legal and illegal activities, and activities that are inherently harmful promotion of FMG, with activities that can be handled by a variety of actors and mitigating actions. 
  • Augment the intelligence of users. Push regulation down to users – enable them to regulate content seen by themselves or for their children. 

If we get rid of this cyber harm umbrella and look at each ‘harm’ as a unique problem, with different actors, contexts, and solutions, then they can each be dealt with through more uniquely appropriate mechanisms. 

That would be my suggestion. Not as simple as asking others to just ‘take care of this’ or ‘stop this’ but there simply is no magic wand or silver bullet that the big tech companies have at their command to accomplish this. Sooner or later, each problem needs to be addressed by often different but appropriate sets of actors, ranging from children, parents, and Internet users to schools, business and governmental organizations, law enforcement, and Internet platforms. The silver lining might be that as the Internet and its benefits become ever more embedded in everyday life and work. And as digital media become more critical that we routinely consider the potential problems as well as the benefits of every innovation made in the design, use, and governance of the Internet in your life and work. All should aim to further empower users to use, and control, and network with others to control the Internet and related digital media, and not to be controlled by a nanny state.  

Further Reading

Useful and broad overviews of the problems with the cyber harms White Paper are available by Gian Volpicelli in Wired[9] and Graham Smith[10] along with many contributions to the Cyber Harms White Paper consultation.


[1] A solicitor, Graham Smith, has argued quite authoritatively that the White Paper actually “abandons the principles underpinning existing duties of care”, see his paper, ‘Online Harms White Paper Consultation – Response to Consultation’, 28 June 2019, posted on his Twitter feed:  https://www.cyberleagle.com/2019/06/speech-is-not-tripping-hazard-response.html

[2] https://www.bmmagazine.co.uk/news/tech-bosses-could-face-criminal-proceedings-if-they-fail-to-protect-users/

[3] Here I found agreement with the views of Paul Barron’s blog, ‘Response to Online Harms White Paper’, 3 July 2019: https://paulbernal.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/response-to-online-harms-white-paper/ Also, see his book, The Internet, Warts and AllCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[4] https://inforrm.org/2019/04/30/users-behaving-badly-the-online-harms-white-paper-graham-smith/

[5] Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983), Forecasting the Telephone: A Retrospective Technology Assessment. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. 

[6] See, for example, Michael Veale, ‘A Critical Take on the Policy Recommendations of the EU High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence’, October 2019, forthcoming in the European Journal of Risk Regulation, available at: https://osf.io/preprints/lawarxiv/dvx4f/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/03/metoobots-scientists-develop-ai-detect-harassment

[8] See Dutton, W. H. and Fernandez, L., ‘How Susceptible are Internet Users‘, Intermedia, Vol 46 No 4 December/January 2019

[9] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/online-harms-white-paper-uk-analysis

[10] https://inforrm.org/2019/04/30/users-behaving-badly-the-online-harms-white-paper-graham-smith/

Britain's Digital Nanny State

The way in which the UK is approaching the regulation of social media will undermine privacy and freedom of expression and have a chilling effect on Internet use by everyone in Britain. Perhaps it is because discussion of a new approach to Internet regulation occurred in the midst of the public’s focus on Brexit, this initiative has not really been exposed to critical scrutiny. Ironically, its implementation would do incredible harm to the human rights of the public at large albeit in the name of curbing the use of the Internet by malicious users, such as terrorists and pedophiles. Hopefully, it is not too late to reconsider this cyber harms framework. 

The problems with the government’s approach were covered well by Gian Voipicelli in an article in Wired UK. I presented my own concerns in a summary to the consumer forum for communications in June of 2019.[1] The problems with this approach were so apparent that I could not imagine this idea making its way into the Queen’s Speech as part of the legislative programme for the newly elected Conservative Government. It has, so let me briefly outline my concerns. 

Robert Huntington, The Nanny State, book cover

The aim has been to find a way to stop illegal or ‘unacceptable’ content and activity online. The problem has been finding a way to regulate the Internet and social media in ways that could accomplish this aim without violating the privacy and freedom of all digital citizens – networked individuals, such as yourself. The big idea has been to apply a duty of care responsibility on the social media companies, the intermediaries between those who use the Internet. Generally, Internet companies, like telephone companies, in the past, would not be held responsible for what their users do. Their liability would be very limited. Imagine a phone company sued because a pedophile used the phone. The phone company would have to surveil all telephone use to catch offenses. Likewise, Internet intermediaries will need to know what everyone is using the Internet and social media for to stop illegal or ‘unacceptable’ behavior. This is one reason why many commentators have referred to this as a draconian initiative. 

So, what are the possible harms? Before enumerating the harms it does consider, it does not deal with harms covered by other legislation or regulators, such as privacy, which is the responsibility of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Ironically, one of the major harms of this initiative will be to the privacy of individual Internet users. Where is the ICO?

The harms cited as within the scope of this cyber harms initiative included: child sexual exploitation and abuse; terrorist content and activity; organized immigration crime; modern slavery; extreme pornography; harassment and cyberstalking;  hate crime; encouraging and assisting suicide; incitement to violence; sale of illegal goods/services, such as drugs and weapons (on the open Internet); content illegally uploaded from prisons; sexting of indecent images by under 18s (creating, possessing, copying or distributing indecent or sexual images of children and young people under the age of 18). This is only a start, as there are cyber harms with ‘less clear’ definitions, including: cyberbullying and trolling; extremist content and activity; coercive behaviour; intimidation; disinformation; violent content; advocacy of self-harm; promotion of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); and underage exposure to legal content, such as children accessing pornography, and spending excessive time online – screen time.  Clearly, this is a huge range of possible harms, and the list can be expanded over time, as new harms are discovered. 

Take one harm, for example, disinformation. Seriously, do you want the regulator, or the social media companies to judge what is disinformation? This would be ludicrous. Internet companies are not public service broadcasters, even though many would like them to behave as if they were. 

The idea is that those companies that allow users to share or discover ‘user-generated content or interact with each other online’ will have ‘a statutory duty of care’ to be responsible for the safety of their users and prevent them from suffering these harms. If they fail, the regulator can take action against the companies, such as fining the social media executives, or threatening them with criminal prosecution.[2]

The White Paper also recommended several technical initiatives, such as to flag suspicious content, and educational initiatives, such as in online media literacy. But the duty of care responsibility is the key and most problematic issue. 

Specifically, the cyber harms initiative poses the following risks: 

  1. Covering an overly broad and open-ended range of cyber harms;
  2. Requiring surveillance in order to police this duty that could undermine privacy of all users;
  3. Incentivizing companies to over-regulate content & activity, resulting in more restrictions on anonymity, speech, and chilling effects on freedom of expression;
  4. Generating more fear, and panic among the general public, undermining adoption & use of the Internet and widening digital divides;
  5. Necessitating an invasive monitoring of content, facing a volume of instances that is an order of magnitude beyond traditional media and telecom, such as 300 hours of video posted on YouTube every minute;
  6. Essentially targeting American tech giants (no British companies), and even suggesting subsidies for British companies, which will be viewed as protectionist, leaving Britain as a virtual backwater of a more global Internet; 
  7. Increasing the fragmentation of Internet regulators: a new regulator, Ofcom, new consumer ‘champion’, ICO, or more?

Notwithstanding these risks, this push is finding support for a variety of reasons. One general driver has been the rise of a dystopian climate of opinion about the Internet and social media over the last decade. This has been exacerbated by concerns over child protection and elections in the US, across Europe, such as with Cambridge Analytica, and with Brexit that created the spectre of foreign interference. Also, Europe and the UK have not developed Internet and social media companies comparable to the so-called big nine of the US and China. (While the UK has a strong online game industry, this industry is not mentioned at all in the White Paper, except as a target of subsidies.) The Internet and social media companies are viewed as foreign, and primarily American, companies that are politically popular to target. In this context, the platformization of the Internet and social media has been a gift to regulators — the potential for companies to police a large proportion of traffic, providing a way forward for politicians and regulators to ‘do something’. But at what costs? 

The public has valid complaints and concerns over instances of online harms. Politicians have not known what to do, but now have been led to believe they can simply turn to the companies and command them to stop cyber harms from occurring, or they will suffer the consequences in the way of executives facing steep fines or criminal penalties. But this carries huge risks, primarily in leading to over-regulation and inappropriate curtailing of the privacy and freedom of expression of all digital citizens across the UK. 

You only need to look at China to see how this model works. In China, an Internet or social media company could lose its license overnight if it allowed users to cross red lines determined by the government. And this fear has unsurprisingly led to over-regulation by these companies. Thus, the central government of China can count on private firms to strictly regulate Internet content and use. A similar outcome will occur in Britain, making it not the safest place to be online, but a place you would not want to be online with your content with even screen time under surveillance. User-generated content will be dangerous. Broadcast news and entertainment will be safe. Let the public watch movies. 

In conclusion, while I am an American, I don’t think this is simply an American obsession with freedom of expression. This right is not absolute even in the USA. Internet users across the world value their ability to ask questions, voice concerns, and use online digital media to access information, people, and services they like without fear of surveillance.[3] It can be a technology of freedom, as Ithiel de Sola Pool argued, in countries that support freedom of expression and personal privacy. If Britons decide to ask the government and regulators to restrict their use of the Internet and social media – for their own good – then they should support this framework for an e-nanny, or digital-nanny state. But its implications for Britain are real cyber harms that will result from this duty of care framework. 


[1] A link to my slides for this presentation is here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/online-harms-white-paper-april-2019-bill-dutton?qid=5ea724d0-7b80-4e27-bfe0-545bdbd13b93&v=&b=&from_search=1

[2] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tech-bosses-face-court-if-they-fail-to-protect-users-q6sp0wzt7

[3] Dutton, W. H., Law, G., Bolsover, G., and Dutta, S. (2013, released 2014) The Internet Trust Bubble: Global Values, Beliefs and Practices. NY: World Economic Forum.